'Set and match now a word from our sponsor'

A trio of Ecuadorians, a South African, and an Argentine grace the roster; an Australian handles the coaching, and two large French firms provide the sponsorship for the most intriguing experiment in tennis.

TEam Peugot-Rossignol represents a new direction in the sport. If it succeeds, this strange alliance could be a prototype for other corporate-sponsored teams.

The idea is to pull together some promising young players, give them the training, guidance, and financial backing they need, then watch them grow. And it certainly seems to be working.

One team member, Jose-Luis Clerc of Argentina, has risen to the No. 12 ranking in the world and has won two recent tournaments including the US Clay Court Championships. Another, Johan Kriek of South Africa, reached the semifinals of the recent US Open and then surprised Bjorn Borg by winning the first two sets before the imperturbable Swede rallied to take a five- set thriller.

Development programs like this were once standard procedure for national tennis federations, but most of them bowed out when the age of big prize money arrived. Since then it's been pretty much every man for himself.

"Pro tennis has really destroyed tennis," says Bob Brett, the Peugot-Rossignol coach. "Federations no longer send teams around the world as they did in the 1950s and '60s. Players today are lost out there [on the pro circuit]."

Brett played tournament tennis himself before becoming a teaching protege of Harry Hopman, perhaps the game's greatest coach. Now a tennis guru in Florida, Hopman once took such Australian greats as Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall under his wing as the mentor of that country's Davis Cup contingent.

Hopman even had a hand in selecting the six players, all 18 to 22, on Team Peugot- Rossignol. The best-known are Clerc and Kriek, while completing the roster are the three Equadorians (Andres Gomez, Ricardo Ycaza, and Raul Viver) along with American Fritz Buehning.

The goal is to help each player land among the top 10. At this point, Kriek and the rapidly improving Gomez appear to have the best chances of joining Clerc among the elite.

"Many players today are satisfied with mediocrity," Brett says. "They get up at 10 o'clock, hit a few balls, then go back to their rooms. But the best results often come from working overtime.The players need to be educated in this way if they're to become better businessmen. The point is, the player who could be making $100,000 shouldn't settle for winning $50,000."

Besides making sure the players put in enough practice time, Brett critiques their tournament matches and offers suggestions for improving strategy.

For the young player, a coach and teammates can be of additional help in coping with the demanding travel, big-money pressure, and unique life style of the pro circuit. Failure to make these adjustments has undonw more than one up-and-coming talent.

"The team is great for me," enthuses Gomez. "There's always someone to work with. Bob makes us practice hard, but he takes care of everything. I don't have to worry about travel plans, [tournament] entries, and hotels. I can concentrate on tennis."

Given an environment conducive to learning, Brett believes his charges could "come of age" in two or three years rather than the more typical five or six.

While under the Peugot-Rossignol banner, the players wield Rossignol rackets and wear clothing bearing the corporate names. They also are obligated to serve as ambassadors for the firms at tennis clinics. At each clinic, two players square off in a one- set exhibition, with a Peugot car going to the overall winner at the end of the year.

This sort of competition carries over naturally into tournament play, where no one wants to be the first team member eliminated.

Because of the fractured nature of the professional tennis tour, the players often go their separate ways. But whenever possible, they travel and train together. And fortunately for Brett, they all speak English, the international language of the sport.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.